Saturday, April 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
For years Nevada judges have had the option, when sentencing alcoholics and drug addicts who commit crimes, of ordering them into a rigorous addiction treatment program in lieu of jail.
There is no such option for the state’s estimated 53,500 adult pathological gamblers, some of whom commit crimes to support their addictions.
That could soon change. The Legislature is en route to passing a bill to allow judges to send convicts who are problem gamblers into treatment instead of prison.
Despite lingering concerns of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, Assembly Bill 102 passed the Judiciary Committee on April 7. On Friday, the measure passed the full Assembly, 34-8.
The bill needs the approval of the Senate and Gov. Jim Gibbons to become law.
“The reason it matters is that we’re talking about people with a mental health diagnosis,” said Carol O’Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. “Simply punishing them doesn’t change anything.”
The bill’s supporters predict the law would mainly affect gamblers who commit crimes to support their habits. “Mounting financial problems, with no end in sight, increase the pressure to offend,” states a talking-points memo on the measure.
These crimes can include passing bad checks, embezzlement, forgery, insurance fraud, robbery or assault. What’s often unique about these criminals, treatment supporters say, is that they have never run afoul of the law and wouldn’t be but for their addiction.
The bill would provide that if a judge has reason to believe a convicted criminal is also a problem gambler, he can opt to have the person screened by a qualified mental health professional. If the professional finds the convict is a problem gambler and a good candidate for treatment, the judge could place the person under supervision for one to three years.
During this time, the problem gambler could be confined to an institution or receive treatment as an outpatient as a deferral of the gambler’s sentence.
The judge could also order the problem gambler to pay restitution or perform community service.
If the gambler is treated satisfactorily and otherwise meets all the conditions of the judge, the conviction would be set aside. If not, the judge would retain the right to impose a prison sentence.
Supervision and treatment costs would be paid by the gambler, or, if the gambler is unable to pay, by state and federal grants.
Some types of criminals could not be referred to the program, including domestic and child abusers and some repeat felons.
Supporters, including prominent judges, say problem gambling should not be used as a criminal defense, but rather as a “mitigating circumstance” that should be considered during sentencing.
Clark County Family Court Judge Cheryl Moss has been invested in the issue for years. She was introduced to it by her mother, psychiatrist Rena Nora, who was one of the first to treat problem gamblers in the state.
“Gambling can destroy a family,” said Moss, who testified in favor of the bill. “A diversionary program can help a person stop gambling, and that can help keep the family together.”
Moss and Harold Albright, a Reno justice of the peace, have for years supported the idea of a deferral program for problem gamblers. Albright, who couldn’t be reached, runs a misdemeanor drug court.
The bill would not create a “gambling court” per se — there is only one such local court in the country, near Buffalo, N.Y. But a specialized diversion program would put Nevada on the cutting edge of how states deal with problem gamblers.
This is noteworthy because Nevada has rarely been ahead of the curve on the issue. Despite having the highest problem and pathological gambling rates in the nation — more than 6 percent of the adult populace, according to the most recent in-depth study on the topic — Nevada has been slow to admit the problem, let alone address it with funding for problem gambling awareness, prevention and treatment programs.
The Legislature tackled the issue in earnest in 2005, when it passed a bill that set aside $2.5 million in slot machine taxes to create Nevada’s first-ever fund to treat problem gamblers. This was years after other states with far less legalized gambling had addressed the issue.
Prosecutors have expressed concerns about the bill, but they don’t appear to be fighting it full-force.
According to Kristin Erickson, a chief deputy district attorney in Washoe County and the top DA lobbyist on the issue, prosecutors are concerned that a gambler, while in treatment, would be under the supervision of a counselor and not a parole or probation officer. She said she’s also concerned that some criminals could falsely claim to be problem gamblers to avoid prison time.
But, she said, prosecutors favor treating problem gambling. The state’s drug courts, which this program would be partly modeled after, work quite well, she said.
For now, Erickson said, prosecutors are monitoring the bill as they determine what course to pursue.
Longtime Reno problem gambling counselor Denise Quirk said prosecutors’ concerns are overstated. Few convicts would be able to charm or lie their way through the screening to determine whether they have gambling problems, she said. Those who do wouldn’t be able to withstand the treatment and supervised care, fines, restitution and community service without giving themselves away.
“This would not be a cakewalk,” Quirk said.
The outlook for the bill appears positive as it moves through Carson City.
According to Daniel Burns, Gibbons’ spokesman, the governor “wouldn’t have a problem supporting the idea” — especially because it appears to carry no cost for the state. Burns added Gibbons would need to study the bill’s details before making a final decision, if and when it lands on his desk.